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Hey! PGA Wants You

Organization Wants New Englanders Back on the Links

Ladies and lapsed golfers, the PGA of America is out to get you.

Through its Get Golf Ready program, the association — which bills itself as the “largest working sports organization” in the world, with 27,000 professionals — has begun an outreach effort geared toward rebuilding participation to counter recession-fed departures.

Having identified Boston and New England as one of nine target markets nationally that it wishes to grow, the PGA’s initiative offers ways to reduce the expense and intimidation of golf by identifying factors that might draw individuals, particularly women, toward it.

At least two Upper Valley courses — Eastman Golf Links and the Woodstock Country Club — have taken up the PGA’s proposal. In the former’s case, GGR is giving the Grantham course a means of expanding on programs it already had in place.

“Get Golf Ready is marketing these programs — you’re seeing commercials for it on PGA Tour events (on television) — so we’re in the loop,” Eastman golf professional Mark Larrabee said this week. “We want to be in markets. We want to run on the coattails of the big guys, to be part of their marketing reach.”

The number of rounds played nationally has dropped in recent years, but courses are starting to see some rebound. A February blog post on the PGA’s website noted 6.4 percent increase in rounds played between 2011 and 2012, the largest such boost since 2000.

Get Golf Ready intends to further improve the sport’s fortunes. One particular area in the PGA’s focus: getting more women to play.

“We did a comprehensive study two years ago, a 360-degree look of consumer preferences, and from that study we could synthesize what the pain points were for new golfers and lapsed golfers,” Sandy Cross, the association’s director of women’s and new market initiatives, said in a phone interview this week.

“The pain points were time, price points, access, intimidation and, in part for women, not feeling welcome and not feeling invited. A lot of times we’d ask a woman why she doesn’t play, and she’d shrug her shoulders and say, ‘I’m not sure I’ve ever been invited.’ It’s that simple invitation: ‘We want you to come explore our game.’ ”

Eastman has been running women-focused programs that predate GGR, Larrabee said, but GGR has helped expand them further.

The Grantham course began the first of five GGR sessions on Tuesday. Larrabee and his assistant pro, Kevin Wright, have divided the five-class sessions over different days of the week — the current one meets on Tuesdays and Saturdays; others have different schedules — in order to accommodate as many people as possible.

“We were doing our own thing (a program called Ladies on the Links), and we’d already got the ball rolling,” Larrabee said. “We have been pretty good at trying to build a so-called system, but you need to have an entry point. Some people want private lessons, and that’s great. But others want that group thing. What women want is a group, and that’s Get Golf Ready.”

GGR tries to break down barriers that either keep golfers away from the course or make it harder for them to return after an absence, according to Brian Bain, the PGA’s Boston regional market manager. If a potential GGR participant doesn’t have equipment, the teaching pro provides it. Hitting a ball well and far isn’t the immediate priority; golfers spend the first class driving carts on the course and putting from short distances so as to experience immediate success.

At most courses, Get Golf Ready starts at $99. Eastman kicks off three GGR price levels at $109, sweetening the pot with five buckets of range balls and a coupon for a private lesson to be used anytime during the golf season.

“It’s a low price point to get you started and see if you like the game,” Bain said.

The social component is particularly important to women, who make up 61 percent of GGR’s registrants, Cross added: “We’re making sure that women understand they can engage on their terms. It doesn’t have to be the traditional 18 holes taking four or five hours; it can be nine-and-dine or six after 6 (p.m.) There are facilities where they pay by the hole now. You can get a bite-sized golf experience, package it how you want. That’s an important message point.”

Once enrolled in Get Golf Ready or taking advantage of Eastman’s PGA short course, using tees at 150 yards with the track’s normal greens, participants will gradually gain in their enjoyment and become future customers or club members, Larrabee said. Because GGR has paired with the website active.com to handle program registration, Larrabee sees the PGA as putting a greater commitment toward bringing new and lapsed golfers to his course.

“We’re trying to grow the game, get more people at the facilities to help them fill their tee sheets and memberships,” Bain said. “In 2008, the number of golfers (playing) was hit hard with the recession, so we’re helping grow the game again.

“It’s a game of a lifetime, about health and wellness. There are so many positives.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.